Learn how to be travel savvy

How do I know our collective travel literacy is lacking? I run a non-profit consumer advocacy organisation that helps travellers every day. This summer our case-load spiked to levels I’ve never seen. I’m talking hundreds of complaints a week and often more.

Most were the result of simple travel misunderstandings – people who wanted refunds on non-refundable airline tickets or to be let off the hook for damage to their rental cars. No, Americans aren’t the world’s savviest travellers. Less than half of us even have passports.

Travel literacy falls into two broad categories: understanding how the travel industry works with its often arcane rules and restrictions; and being aware of other cultures and customs. One is easy to overcome; the other isn’t.

I’ll start with the first one. At least 95% of it is reading the rules – all of them.

A vast majority of misunderstandings with airlines, hotels and cruise lines end with travellers admitting they failed to review the terms of their purchase. That’s how they ended up with, say, a non-refundable hotel room or a restrictive timeshare. Most of the remaining 5% is fixable with real-world experience.

The more you travel, the more you understand how the system works. It’s something you can’t learn in a classroom. (Less than 1% of the problems involved truly intractable issues that need a professional advocate – and that’s what I do.)

People who claim they can teach you the ins and outs of the travel industry, and make you more travel-literate with a simple course are probably exaggerating. It’s true that you can pick up valuable skills on travel safety through a course like Depart Smart or learn more about optimising your loyalty programmes by attending Frequent Traveller University. But there’s nothing like being there.

So let’s talk about the second part of travel literacy, which is looking more like a citizen of the world than someone who’s never crossed a county line. Read a book

The right travel book can educate, inspire and enlighten. “Good writing helps me to look at my surroundings with new eyes,” says Martha Merritt, dean of international education at the University of Richmond.

Among her favourites: Bill Bryson (her favourite is Notes From a Small Island) and The Art of Travel by Alain de Botton. A book about travel, most travel-literate people tell me, is not necessarily a travel guidebook. It can simply be a book – fiction or non-fiction – about a place.

Brush up on your travel literacy: understand how the travel industry works and be aware of other cultures and customs.

Find your affinity group on social media

That’s what Tiffany Burnette, who runs a design firm in Philadelphia, does between trips. She spends time on Facebook’s travel groups connecting with new friends and learning new travel skills. Among her favourites: GoWonder’s Female Solo Travel/Women Group Travel page, and Weekend Wanderlust. “Many of them are specifically for women travellers, with tons of incredible advice in those groups,” she says.

Watch a movie or documentary

“While some movies can have gross misrepresentations of cultures and people, there are still an incredible amount of quality films and documentaries that give an authentic sense of place, context and history to wherever your travels may lead next,” says Ashley Blake, founder of Traverse Journeys. She cites the 10-part documentary The Vietnam War by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick as an example. The series, she says, “took a deep dive into the complexities of a place to help you appreciate the culture and perspective you’ll encounter while there”.

Learn a language

An app like Duolingo is a great way to brush up on your language skills before you travel. “I spend 15 to 20 minutes each day working on my basic language skills so that I can at least do the minimum to show respect,” says Jeff Wilson, the host of Real Rail Adventures on PBS. “Phrases like ‘please’, ‘thank you’, counting and asking basic travel questions.


Vanessa Valiente, a San Diego fashion consultant, downloads maps of her destination on her phone. “I like to study them to get to know the area before arriving,” she says. “I also download the top-rated transit apps of my destination. A competent tour operator can handle everything from hotel reservations to meals, so you can have a destination worry-free.

But there’s no substitute for on-the-ground travel experience.

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